Exclusively pumping mothers tell me that with one 8 oz glass of non-alcoholic, European-style beer after dinner, they pump measurably more milk the next day. Some also report that they have more frequent and stronger let-downs at the pump that same evening.
These “measurable results” (pumping mothers measure their milk output) confirm what mothers have known for generations: that European-styled beers, using traditional beer ingredients, are lactogenic.(1)
However, not all pumping mothers respond to beer. For many, there is no noticeable difference.
Welcome to the world of “complex systems.” Each of us is a unique individual. Medicinal foods and herbs (and also pharmaceutical medicine) will affect each of us differently.
There is no “one-size-fits-all” effect. In the end it is up to each nursing parent to experiment with lactogenic foods, herbs, and supplements, and to discover what works for them. (My work on the “lactogenic diet” provides helpful guidelines: see the book Mother Food.)
The lactogenic diet uses a wide range of foods and herbs to “work.”
This contrasts to Western medicine, which aims to have “one pill for every ill.”
Many non-Western cultures have managed to conserve and preserve the traditional postpartum meals of their great-great-great-grandmothers, meals that support a mother’s transition into milk production. We in the West have forgotten nearly everything that we once knew, information that is hinted at in ancient texts from Greece, Rome and Egypt. Yet we remember that beer is supposed to increase milk production.
When I first began researching “galactagogues,” (foods, herbs, medicines that increase milk supply), the historic use of beer took on undue importance. Should beer be proven to support milk supply, our breastfeeding researchers might regard the world-wide use of galactagogues with more interest. If beer did not “work” the idea of lactogenic food and herbs and their value for breastfeeding success could be dismissed and ignored (as it has been, up to today).
What did medical research discover?
One key study conducted by Dr. Julie Mennella and her research team, Beer, breast feeding, and folklore, concluded that our great-great-Grandmothers were deceived.(2) The study shows that when mothers drink beer–the light colored American type with about 5% alcohol–their babies drink more slowly and the mother therefore incorrectly believes that she has more milk.
I was troubled by both this study and by the studies that followed, which concluded that alcohol stalls the let-down reflex and slows the flow of the milk.
I wondered, would these same studies, if conducted with a traditional beer recipe (see below) yield the same results?
What about the generations of women who lived before industrialized beer production, who drank the home-brewed product called “small beer,” the low-alcohol beer that was preferred by breastfeeding mothers.(1)
In 2010, I emailed Dr. Mennella who said that she had considered repeating the study, using beer that is closer to what women in the past would have consumed. However, her financing institution did not believe that more research was needed.
So the question remained: was the alcohol-containing beer of yesteryear different in some essential way from the alcohol-containing beer of today?
The answer, of course, is yes. It was a very different beverage indeed. Read on to learn more.
Any advice about beer or about any other milk-enhancing food or herb is only meant to support the body’s response to frequent and effective pumping or feeding, and not to replace it.
Investigating the Past
While we can’t travel through time to ask mothers living hundreds of years ago about the types of beer that worked for them, we do have some reliable information. One-hundred-eighty years ago, a British doctor named Charles Henry Felix Routh interviewed older, professional wet-nurses and noted their answers in his book, Infant Feeding. The wet-nurses assured Dr. Routh that a specific type of beer called “double stout” was best at supporting their milk production. Some declared that they could only continue to produce milk with the help of this beer.(3)
Stout is the silkiest, darkest, maltiest kind of beer, containing the highest concentration of lactogenic ingredients.
Dr. Routh warns us, however, that too much reliance on stout (drinking instead of eating) will reduce milk supply and be a detriment to a mother’s health. He suggests that mothers drink only one tumbler of stout and that they alternate or combine the stout with 2x – 3x the amount of cow’s or goat’s milk.(4)
Routh dosed beer just as one would dose a supplement or medication: one tumbler (8 oz) with food.
Routh wrote his book during the 1850s, before infant formula first came available in 1860. As the director of an orphanage, Routh saw newborn babies die for lack of proper food each day. (Hence the tragic title of his book: Infant Feeding and Its Influence on Life.)
On a mission to save lives, Routh dug into the causes of low supply and looked for answers. His book is full of incredible insights, observations, anecdotes, and research. Among other suggestions, Routh listed many milk-boosting foods and herbs and discussed those that he had personally observed to be the most helpful.
Today, we are learning how a “lactogenic diet” guides mothers to overcome hormonal imbalances and nutritional deficiencies that contribute to insufficient milk production. I invite you to learn more about how the lactogenic diet works, and about how it can help you build and maintain your milk supply at its optimal level.
Scroll below to learn more about beer and breastfeeding.
Mothers nowadays find that the dark, malty, non-alcoholic European beers such as Guinness Stout-0 or St. Pauli Girl offer the best milk-boosting effect. Let’s find out why this might be so.
Four Lactogenic Ingredients
The traditional recipe for beer is comprised of four ingredients: barley (grain and malt), yeast, hops, and water. Each of these is lactogenic in its own right. First, hops acts as a sedative. It calms the nerves and purportedly helps with the let-down reflex. Then, yeast contains beta-glucan and is often used as a galactagogue.(5) Let’s not forget water: hydration is key to a good milk supply. Finally, we have barley grain and barley malt, which also contain beta-glucan.
Health-Enhancing Beta-Glucans for Milk Supply
Beta-glucan is a type of starch called a viscous long-chain polysaccharide. Among its many medicinal properties, beta-glucan balances blood-sugar, feeds the good bacteria of the gut, improves digestion, and has immune enhancing effects.(6) Studies on animals show that beta-glucan increases milk production as well as increasing the milk-making hormone, prolactin. For more information, see my blogpost Beta-Glucans and the Dual Role of Prolactin.(7)
Each of the ingredients, barley, hops and yeast, are rich in phyto-estrogens. These plant substances are structurally similar to bio-estrogen and exert a very weak estrogenic signal in the body. Phyto-estrogens are found in many galactagogues, both herbs and foods, and doubtless play a role in milk supply.
Beta-Glucans and Commercial Beer Production
Because beta-glucan is viscous and sticky, it blocks the filters and damages the brewing machinery. No wonder commercial brewers are keen to reduce beta-glucan, which they achieve by cross-breeding strains of barley and by using specific enzymes that eviscerate beta-glucan.(8)
Unfortunately for mothers, low levels of beta-glucan also lowers beer’s milk-boosting power. The European-style dark malty beers, however, increase the content of malt to balance the bitter flavor of hops flowers. Presumably, they therefore contain more beta-glucan than non-malty beer.
Caution: Alcohol is anti-lactogenic and should be avoided when countering low milk supply. It stalls the milk ejection reflex and slows down the flow of the milk. Because the baby drinks longer at the breast, it can appear to the mother that she has more milk, when she does not.
Caution: beer contains gluten, and will aggravate any condition that is related to gluten sensitivity in you or your baby.
Read on below to learn more about the history of beer, about different kinds of beer and their uses for women, and about its reputation and uses as a galactagogue.
Barley is one of our oldest grains, and is one of first to be cultivated by humans in Stone-Age times. Its long-chain polysaccharide, beta-glucan, increases prolactin, the hormone of milk production. Barley is highly nutritional and was the preferred grain for men who engage in hard labor, or fight wars. It was said to build strength and maintain stamina.(4)
Guiness Stout: Silky & Smooth
Guinness, one of the big Irish breweries, specializes in stout that is made with both barley malt and barley grain. Some brews also include oats–another grain that contains beta-glucan.
It makes sense that Guinness is frequently recommended for breastfeeding mothers, as it is high in malted barley and oat, and will contain better quantities of beta-glucan.
That said, special low-alcohol, high-malt brews were traditionally made for breastfeeding mothers – see below.
In home brewing, the so-called “mashing” (or boiling of malt, grains, and herbs) was performed twice with the same grains and herbs. Whereas the first mashing returns a strong alcoholic beer, the second mashing returns a low-alcoholic beverage called “small beer” that was loosely filtered—a thin, porridge-like fluid that could practically be eaten!
Up until 150 years ago, “small beer” was viewed as a healthy, nutritious beverage that could be given to children, servants, to men performing hard labor, and to pregnant and breastfeeding mothers. In Germany, the second mash was called “Nährbier,” meaning, literally, “nutritional beer.” Into the mid-20th century, Nährbier was produced in Germany commercially and recommended to breastfeeding mothers as nutrition and to enhance their milk production.
This then is the historic beer used by breastfeeding mothers: stronger in nutrition, weaker in alcohol. It is quite a different brew from any commercial beer today.
The advertisement compares the mother who drinks beer to the one who does not.
During the 19th century, “temperance movements” formed in many countries around the world to discourage the use of alcohol. In response, beer industries produced non-alcoholic, beer-like beverages using hops, yeast, and malt. In the US, malt beer was called Near-Beer; in Germany, Malz-Bier, and in France, bière de nourrice, or “wet-nurse beer.” All were recommended as nourishing beverages for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers and were reported to increase milk supply.
Malt is derived from barley grain. Both malt syrup and malt powder are a widely used historic galactagogue. Today, many new brands of non-alcoholic malt-beer are available commercially. The best known is the Guinness Malta. Root-beer also commonly is made with malt. These beers are very popular in South America, Africa, and Israel. Many mothers in these countries swear that malt-beverages support their supply.
Milk-Boosting Beverages from Ancient Times
The ancient civilizations of Sumer and Egypt discovered the secrets of malting and brewing over three thousand years ago, using the barley grain.
According to pictorial hieroglyphs, women and slaves were involved in the labor of large-scale beer production in Egypt. Later, in Greek and Roman times, barley was one of many ingredients that might be freely combined in a variety of alcoholic recipes. When these ingredients included lactogenic herbs and fruit, the effect was doubtless noticed by breastfeeding women.
The Greek doctor Dioscorides (1st century C.E.) describes an alcoholic beverage to increase milk supply made with dried black figs, freshly pressed grapes, fennel, and thyme, all of which are known to be lactogenic ingredients.
The Greek surgeon Antyllus (2nd century CE), mentions a fermented grain beverage that was combined with the crushed unripe seeds of the sesame plant and crushed palm dates: again, these are two very potent, lactogenic ingredients.
These examples are just two of countless beverages that were enjoyed by breastfeeding women across the ancient world.
Brewing Beer in Monasteries
During the first thousand years or so after the fall of Rome, the skills and knowledge of the ancient world were largely forgotten. At this time, the art of brewing and also the art of medicine and of medicinal herbs were kept alive in the herb gardens, medical care centers and breweries in monasteries across Europe.
Eventually, however, with the development of small farmsteads, brewing techniques passed into the hands of women as domestic work. Each thriving family farm would brew its own beer, and the term “Brewster” came to mean a woman who brews in her home.
Flavoring the Beer with Hops Flowers
At first, many different herbs were used to flavor beer. They were chosen both for their taste and for their medicinal and mind-altering effects, from anti-parasitic, to anti-depressant, to hallucinogenic.
Eventually, the recipe would be restricted to Hops. (This is explained in more detail below.) Hops has a delightfully bitter taste. Its effect is relaxing and slightly narcotic: the “golden glow” that we feel with beer is the Hops.
Drinking a glass of beer can bring on a late menstrual period. But Hops also reduces sexual drive and potency, and the phyto-estrogens in beer can feminize men: the famous beer belly is a sign. Centuries ago, these effects may have been intended: beer-besotted men would have been less capable of unwanted or forced sexual contact, and also less prone to violent bar brawls, compared to being drunk on hard liquor.
Yes, the choice to use Hops may have been an early instance of public health management.
Hops is an estrogenic herb and a sedating galactagogue with a strong reputation for the milk ejection reflex.
Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), an influential nun, author, herbalist, songwriter, and philosopher of her day, is said to have strongly advocated for hops to become the standard herb used in beer.
My guess is that Hildegard knew what she was doing for women and mothers.
Thank you, Hilde!
For several centuries, brewing remained the work of farmwives; it was a source of family income with beer sold through local pubs or directly from the farm. As economies evolved, however, the upper classes passed laws that successfully suppressed these small family businesses.
Brewing recipes were strictly regulated, and fees and fines imposed. Eventually, brewing was impractical for small domestic breweries and pub houses, and the way was clear for large industrial breweries to dominate the market, industries that have prospered to the present day.
The Power of the International Market
Beginning in the early 1500s, German law limited the ingredients to barley, hops, yeast, and water.
Reasons for this went beyond taste preferences.
By prohibiting the use of wheat in brewing beer, more wheat was available to bake bread. Also, by restricting the allowed ingredients, other types of beer were pushed into obscurity and could no longer compete with the large breweries.
The new laws formed a barrier to the importation of any foreign beer that used other ingredients, effectively eliminating international competition. Brewers in neighboring countries conformed to the German recipe, to be able to sell within the large German market. The international production of beer became uniform–though today, local, small breweries are becoming creative with the ingredients again.
Luckily for breastfeeding mothers, the “pure” ingredients defined by German law, barley, malt, hops, and yeast, are intensely lactogenic. This is why classical European beer is recognized by breastfeeding mothers and their savvy healthcare providers as the best beer-type galactagogue.
Author: Hilary Jacobson (c) All Rights Reserved 2022
1. Koletzko, B., & Lehner, 1. (2002). Beer and breastfeeding. Short and long term effects of breast feeding on child health, 23-28.
2. Mennella, J. A., & Beauchamp, G. K. (1993). Beer, breast feeding, and folklore. Developmental Psychobiology: The Journal of the International Society for Developmental Psychobiology, 26(8), 459-466.
3. Routh, C. H. F. (1879). Infant feeding and its influence on life, or, the causes and prevention of infant mortality (Vol. 37). W. Wood. p 86
4. Newman, C. W., & Newman, R. K. (2006). A brief history of barley foods. Cereal foods world, 51(1), 4-7. http://new.westerntrailsfood.com/docs/barley_history_newmans.pdf
5. Jia, L. L., Brough, L., & Weber, J. L. (2021). Saccharomyces cerevisiae Yeast-Based Supplementation as a Galactagogue in Breastfeeding Women? A Review of Evidence from Animal and Human Studies. Nutrients, 13(3), 727.
6. Mohiuddin, S. F. (2022). Benefits for Post Prandial Glucose, Lipid Metabolism, and Immune Modulation: A Mini-Review on Barley Beta-Glucan. Journal of Basic and Clinical Pharmacy, 13(2).
7. Beta-Glucans and the Dual Role of Prolactin: A Detective Story. https://hilaryjacobson.com/lactogenic-diet/beta-glucans-and-the-dual-role-of-prolactin-a-detective-story/
8. Edison, L. K., Reji, S. R., & Pradeep, N. S. (2022). Beta-Glucanase in Breweries. In Microbial Beta Glucanases: Molecular Structure, Functions and Applications (pp. 85-98). Singapore: Springer Nature Singapore.